Squats, Slan Shacks & Dial House
This is the second article in a series on the "Down Home Punk" flavor of Green Wizardry.
It can’t be down home punk if the green wizardry style in question doesn’t take place in a home. Since the beginnings of punk, a place where a bunch of punks gather and live together has been called a punk house. In the sense that the down home folks of pre-industrial cultures tended to live as extended families, the down home punks of post-industrial urban centers will also tend to live together as a group. There is also a strong possibility that many individuals will be living as squatters. In his 2004 book Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World Robert Neuwirth reported on his visits to cities Rio de Janeiro, Nairobi, Mumbai and Istanbul. At the time of his writing it was estimated that there were roughly 1 billion squatters around the world, and that by 2030 that number would double to 2 billion. The squatters he reported on lived in all manner of conditions including shantytowns, favelas, shacks, and other improvised structures. His study was isolated to third and second world countries. But as the U.S. and other industrialized first world nations descend the staircase of catabolic collapse, the number of squatters and squatter neighborhoods in large cities will begin to rise.
Since the Great Recession there have been increased numbers of people in the U.S. squatting in foreclosed homes. This is very true in Detroit and I predict it will become the first North American city to have whole neighborhoods of squatters on par with the cities visited Neuwirth. According to the Detroit Land Bank Authority, a public agency that manages the city's abandoned properties, squatters occupy more than 3,000 home, in a city where 43,000 remain vacant. These vacant homes are a cause for concern among residents. Some try to adopt abandoned houses on their block in an effort to contain the spread of blight and structural decay. If a squatter moves in and actually works to improve the property, as many do, it can be a win-win.
Some folks in Detroit go a step further and homestead the vacant buildings, using them as spaces to grow food, raise chickens, and engage in other activities that could be described as green wizardry. Mark Covington decided to plant a community garden on one site as a way to deter the people who were using it as an illegal dump. In 2008 he had started by working three properties and by 2018 was creatively reusing twenty-three, having gotten some help along the way from neighborhood kids and other volunteers.
As Neuwirth showed the housing predicament isn’t limited to North America. In Glasgow, Scotland folks living in the neighborhood of Gorbals have had a long struggle with poverty. In the 1970’s the situation was harrowing. The city blocks in the district were semi-derelict and might as well have been squats. Young mothers lived in tenements where rainwater pooled on the floors that rats were also free to roam. The non-profit group Shelter had made strides since that time in improving the living conditions of the people but there continues to be shortage of affordable living as the process of gentrification takes over places once seen as undesirable. “…at the end of last year  Scottish Labour's former housing minister warned that Scotland is facing its largest housing crisis since the end of WWII, with the potential of a shortfall of 160,000 homes by 2035.”
These cities are only a few where blight has set in and continues to spread.
One solution to housing problems is to squat and if you’re going to squat it might as well be in style, albeit cheap, salvaged, scrounged and grungy style. Punkers already know how to live grungy on the cheap, so why not take a few tips from those who have done it intentionally, from people who have avoided the rush to collapse by living that way now? Enter the punk house, a place where members of the punk subculture dwell together, as a way to pool resources, and cut back participation in the financial system.
Groups, couples or individuals can live the Down Home Punk style in homes already owned, by squatting, or other arrangements. Those who choose this option may or may not be related by blood, but exist within the weave of an extended blended family. Different folks will simmer together in the stew pot of circumstance and need. In a world gone dark from lack of oil and electricity, in a world gone hungry after another year of failed crops, in a world beset with violence and potential uprisings living together as an extended family or tribe offers solidarity and protection.
Punks weren’t the first subculture to cram a bunch of bodies into a house to share chores, living expenses and cut costs while working on projects they loved and do things they needed to do to survive. While various quasi-communal living arrangements have been enjoyed down the centuries in various forms, we only have to travel back in time to the late 1930’s and early 40’s to see the dream of a shared house established among the first nerds of science fiction fandom. Yes, I’m talking about Slan Shacks.
But what the heck is a Slan Shack anyway? The name Slan came from the novel of the same name by A.E. van Vogt, first serialized in Astounding Science Fiction in 1940 and later published as a hardcover by Arkham House in 1946. In the story Slans are super intelligent evolved humans in possession of psychic abilities, a high degree of stamina, strength, speed and “nerves of steel”. Named after their alleged creator, Samuel Lann, when a Slan gets ill or injured they go into an automatic healing trance until their powers are recovered.
SF heads came up with the slogan “Fans are Slans” after Vogt’s book came out as a way of expressing their perceived superiority, greater intelligence and imaginative ability over non-science fiction readers, so called “mundanes”. Though some considered this to be elitist, others just thought it was a natural reaction against the derogatory way science fiction and its fans were often treated by those who thought the pulps were trash literature. Later, when groups of fans and aspiring SF writers started living together as a way to share expenses, the homes were named Slan Shacks.
According to the science fiction Fancyclopedia its “a tongue-in-cheek reference to Deglerism, which came to mean any household with two or more unrelated fans (or, provided three or more fans were involved, could include married couples).” The Fancyclopedia goes on to say, “Although many early New York fans, attempting to economize while seeking a pro career, shared apartments in the Big Apple, the first Slan Shack so dubbed came into being in late 1943 in Battle Creek, Michigan; it lasted only two years, breaking up in September 1945 when its occupants moved to California, but gave its name to the practice. The best known fans of the ‘original’ Slan Shack included E. E. Evans, Walt Liebscher, Jack Wiedenbeck and Al & Abby Lu Ashley.”
The Slan Shack or the idea of it if not the name, had actually been around a bit earlier than this, since 1938. One such group was the Galactic Roomers, a pun from the name of SF club the Galactic Roamers based in Michigan and centered around the work of writer E. E. “Doc” Smith. The idea was basically the same as a punk house, a place where science fiction fans could share the costs and loads of living, bum around and off each other, store their collections of books and pulp magazines, and decorate the place as they pleased. Other shacks group up out of fandom as well and these included, the Flat in London, England, then the Futurian House and in 1943 the Slan Shack itself. The name stuck for these dens of high geekdom.
The punk movement evolved out of and in retaliation to the hippie subculture, and the punk house is similar to the crash pads of the 1960’s. Andy Warhol’s Factory was a foundational precursor and model for the punk house as it developed in New York City. Across the pond in Essex the Dial House formed in the late 60’s later to become the birthplace and home of the band Crass. I consider Dial House even more than the Factory to be one of the foundational templates of the punk house. It still exists today. The Positive Force house in Arlington, Virginia served as a locus for the Washington D.C. hardcore and straight edge scene of the mid-80’s. The alternative art and collaborative space ABC No Rio grew out of the squatter scene taking place in New York’s Lower East. Taking a detailed look at each of these places will give insights into what has been done, and what is possible. Let’s start with Dial House.
Though the punk house is especially suited for urban areas, especially when groups of individuals take over an abandoned building or spaces to homestead, the principal may also be applied to a home on a piece of property in the country. The rambling farm cottage that became Dial House was originally built in the 16th century. Set on the idyllic land of Epping Forest in south-west Essex, England, one could easily imagine it as a haven for hippies and others in the back to earth crowd. But punks? Dial house was launched in 1967 and had been heavily influenced by the hippie subculture. In the book Teenage: the Creation of Youth Culture, Jon Savage described punk as bricolage, combing and mixing and blending together elements from all the previous youth culture in the industrialized West going back to WWII, and as he says, it was all “stuck together with safety pins.” Various philosophies and artistic styles that could more broadly be described as bohemian were all collaged together by the nascent punk rockers. Anything that wasn’t nailed to the floor was taken and glued to something that had been dumpster dived from somewhere else.
Dial House was an alembic for this yeasty form of cultural fermentation and a variety of influences were baked into its foundation when they first started launching artistic spores out into the world in 1967. The building itself was the former home of Primrose McConnell, a tenant farmer and the author of The Agricultural Notebook (1883), a standard reference work for the European farming industry. By the late 60s the property had sat derelict, its gardens overgrown with brambles, and was ripe to be taken over by some starving artists who needed a place to set up shop.
It began with resident Penny “Lapsang” Rimbaud. Penny is a writer, artist, philosopher, musician and jazz aficionado who at the time was working as a lecturer in an art school. Two other teachers joined him on the property and they started working on making improvements, making the cottage livable and the land workable. They were able to sublet the property from an adjacent farm with minimal rent due to the amount of sweat equity they were putting in to make a perfect domicile for the wayward.
By 1970 Dial House had become something of a bohemian salon. Creative thinkers of various stripes were attracted by the atmosphere Rimbaud and his cohorts had started to create. Seeing the possibilities afforded by low rent and collaboration Penny decided to quit his job in order to expand on the further potentials for developing a self-sufficient lifestyle free from the time constraints the cramping day job. He also wanted the place to be a free space open to anyone and everyone. Rimbaud said that Dial House would operate with an “open door, open heart” policy. To that end all the locks were removed from all of the doors. Anyone who wants to drop in and stay may do so, and is welcomed, though they are encouraged to help out with the chores.
Penny writes of his motivations, “I was fortunate enough to have found a large country house at very low rent, and felt I wanted to share my luck. I had wanted to create a place where people could get together to work and live in a creative atmosphere rather than the stifling, inward looking family environments in which most of us had been brought up. Within weeks of opening the doors, people started turning up out of nowhere. Pretty soon we were a functioning community.
… I had opened up the house to all-comers at a time when many others were doing the same. The so-called ‘Commune Movement’ was the natural result of people like myself wishing to create lives of cooperation, understanding and sharing. Individual housing is one of the most obvious causes for the desperate shortage of homes. Communal living is a practical solution to the problem. If we could learn to share our homes, maybe we could learn to share our world. That is the first step towards a state of sanity.”
The visual artist, print maker and skilled gardener Gee Vaucher soon joined the household to become its most long-term resident besides Rimbaud himself. The ground floor of Dial House transformed into a shared studio space while the upper rooms were reserved for accommodations. Later a couple of trailers were added to the grounds to accommodate the constant influx of visitors. At this point the house became an ever-shifting interzone populated by artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers who spent their time working on projects and helping to run the house and garden. The garden itself was run on organic principles, guided by Vaucher’s green thumb and intuition about plants. Under her guidance they were also able to set up a cottage industry producing small batch herbal remedies. The place was beginning to develop its own home economy.
With all of the life force bubbling up in the garden, and the creative passions of the visitors and long term residents stewing in the studio, it wasn’t long before new collaborative projects were created. Vaucher and Rimbaud had already been working together as members of the Stanford Rivers Quartet, where they explored the relationship between sound and imagery. The group found its inspiration from the Bauhaus art school, jazz and classical composers such as Lucio Berio and Edgar Varese.
In 1971 the Stanford Rivers Quartet expanded into an ensemble that sometimes consisted of up to a dozen players and changed their name to Exit. Even more artists and filmmakers got involved to put together “happenings" as was the spirit of the day, and these spawned into circus like proportions. The operational strategy of Exit was guerilla. Unannounced they would turn up at venues to play their music. How this fared for the audience, I’m not sure, but it was a strategy for getting their material out into the world without relying on traditional booking methods.
Around this time Dial House members became involved with various festivals including ICES 72. Exit played at the fest and several related events were held at the House itself. Vaucher, Rimbaud and the other residents proved critical to its success and organization, producing and printing flyers in their print room, and helping the founder Harvey Matusow with the programming. One of the connections they made via ICES was with filmmaker Anthony McCall with whom they would continue to work. The print shop at Dial House became an integral part of their home economy and out of it was born Exitstencil Press.
HIPPIE DRUID PUNKS
1973 marked a turning point for the future trajectory of Dial House and those who made a home there. It all began when Phillip Russell arrived. Even by crazy freewheeling hippie standards, he was an eccentric. Russell went by a number of aliases, his most famous being Wally Hope. According to Nigel Ayers the use of the name ‘Wally’ by hippies “had come from an early seventies festival in-joke, when the call `Wally!' and `Where's Wally?' would go round at nightfall. It may have been the name of a lost sound engineer at the first Glastonbury festival, or a lost dog at the 1969 Isle of Wight festival. There have been other suggestions for its origins, but it was a regular shout at almost any festival event.”
From what I’ve read of the man it seems that one thing Phillip Russell had was a heart full of hope, for the earth and its people. It thus seems fitting he called himself Wally Hope. Just as his heart was filled and brimming, so his head was full of ideas.
One of his ideas was to take back the Stonehenge monument for the people of Britain, and he planned to do it by staging a Free Festival there. Wally thought Dial House would be the perfect HQ for his nascent operation. By that time Penny Rimbaud and Wally had become fast friends and Rimbaud was quickly recruited for the project, leading him to become a co-founder of the fest. Despite significant backlash from the authorities, whom the hippies and proto punks thumbed their noses at, Wally’s inspiration and dedication led to the first Stonehenge Free Festival in 1974.
In The Last of the Hippies, Rimbaud’s book about Russell and the events surrounding the first few years of the festival he writes of his motivation in helping Russell see his vision come to be. “We shared Phil’s disgust with ‘straight’ society, a society that puts more value on property than people, that respects wealth more than it does wisdom. We supported his vision of a world where people took back from the state what the state had stolen from the people. Squatting as a political statement has its roots in that way of thought. Why should we have to pay for what is rightfully ours? Whose world is this? Maybe squatting Stonehenge wasn’t such a bad idea.”
That first year the gathering was small, and the gathered multi-subcultural tribe lived in an improvised fort around the ancient monument. It was essentially a megalithic squat. Expecting to be turned out by the System, the squatters had all previously agreed that when the authorities tried to remove them they would only answer to the name Wally. The Department of the Environment who were the keepers of Stonehenge issued the ‘wallies’ what amounted to an eviction notice: they were told to clear off and keep off. When the London High Courts tried to bring the people who had squatted at Stonehenge to trial they were faced with the absurdity of the names on the summons papers: Willy Wally, Sid Wally, Phil Wally and more. The newspapers had a heyday with the trials, and in a mercurial manner helped to spread word of what had happened, priming the pump and setting things into motion for another, bigger, Stonehenge Free Festival the next year. The Wallies lost the court trial against them but as Wally Hope said, they had really “won” the day.
An article from the August 13, 1974 Times has it thus, “A strange hippie cult calling themselves 'Wallies' claim God told them to camp at Stonehenge. The Wallies of Wiltshire turned up in force at the High Court today. There was Kris Wally, Alan Wally, Fritz Wally, Sir Walter Wally, Wally Egypt and a few other wandering Wallys. The sober calm of the High Court was shattered as the Wallies of Stonehenge sought justice. A lady Wally called Egypt with bare feet and bells on her ankles blew soap bubbles in the rarefied legal air and knelt to meditate. Sir Walter Wally wore a theatrical Elizabethan doublet with blue jeans and spoke of peace and equality and hot dogs. Kevin Wally chain-smoked through a grotesque mask and gave the victory sign to embarrassed pin-striped lawyers. And tartan-blanketed Kris Wally – ‘My mates built Stonehenge’ - climbed a lamp-post in the Strand outside the Law Courts and stopped bemused tourists in their tracks. The Wallies (motto `Everyone's a Wally: Everyday's a Sun Day') - made the pilgrimage to the High Court to defend what was their squatter right to camp on Stonehenge. . . the Department of the Environment is bringing an action in the High Court to evict the Wallies from the meadow, a quarter of a mile from the sarsen circle of standing stones, which is held by the National Trust on behalf of the nation. The document, delivered by the Department to the camp is a masterpiece of po-faced humour, addressed to ‘one known as Arthur Wally, another known as Philip Wally, another known as Ron Wally and four others each known as Wally’. For instance, paragraph seven begins resoundingly: ‘There were four male adults in the tent and I asked each one in turn his name. Each replied `I'm Wally’'. There are a soft core of about two dozen, peace-loving, sun worshipping Wallies - including Wally Woof the mongrel dog. Hitch-hikers thumbing their way through Wiltshire from Israel, North America, France, Germany and Scotland have swollen their numbers. Egypt Wally wouldn't say exactly where she was from - only that she was born 12,870 years ago in the cosmic sun and had a certain affinity with white negative. Last night they were squatting on the grass and meditating on the news.”
If the druid hippie punks were the winners in the eyes of the public, the forces and people at play within the State were sore from the egg thrown on their face by the media. Someone had to be taught a lesson.
In 1975 preparations for the next iteration of the Festival began and the counterculture rallied around the cause. Word of mouth spread it around the underground and handbills and flyers had been printed up in the Dial House studio for further dissemination. Things were shaping up for it to be a success. In May before the second festival was to be launched Russel went off on a jaunt to Cornwall to rest for a spell in his tepee before it began. He left in good spirits and high health. These activities weren’t going unnoticed by the State and the people involved in them unwatched.
Only a few days later he had gotten arrested, sectioned and incarcerated in the psyche ward for possession of three tabs of LSD. It just so happened that the police mounted a raid on a squat he had been staying in for the night. The cops claimed they were looking for an army deserter. Wally somewhat fit the description of “the deserter” because he had taken to wearing an eclectic mixture of middle-eastern military uniforms and Scottish tartans. When they searched his coat they found the contraband substance and nabbed him. Of course no one had really been trailing him, no one knew who it really was: the guy who’d made the British courts look like fools when prosecuting the hippies who had staged the Stonehenge coup. Upon his arrest Wally was refused bail, kept in prison, given no access to phone or the ability to write letters to his friends. His father was dead and his sister and mother had cut ties with him.
Held against his will in a psychiatric hospital, no one in Dial House saw him until a month later when they finally learned of his predicament. When they did manage to visit him he was a changed man. He had lost weight, was nervous and hesitant in his speech, and was always on the lookout for authorities. After their first visit they attempted to secure his release looking first to do so in a way that was legal. When they hit the blockades set in place by the System they hatched an escape plan but the psychiatric drugs Wally was being fed and injected with had taken a toll on all aspects of his health. To execute their plan would have caused him more damage. Rimbaud and the other plotters weren’t sure if he could physically and psychologically cope with an escape that would place him under further strain and demands. So they had to let it go, and leave he was, even though their hearts were tortured by this decision.
Meanwhile the second Stonehenge festival went on whilst the visionary who had instigated it was suffering the side effects of modecate injections. This time thousands of people had turned up for it, whereas the first year estimates were in the realm of a few hundred to five hundred attendees. This time the authorities were powerless to stop the gathering.
Eventually Wally Hope was let go, but the prescription drug treatment the authorities had forced him to take while on the inside had taken their toll. He was in a bad way, incapacitated, zombie zonked on government sanctioned psych meds. Three weeks later he was dead. The official verdict was suicide from sleeping pills, but Rimbaud disputed this, and delved into his own investigation of the matter over the next year. Later he wrote about his friend and the case and concluded that Russel had been assassinated by the state.
Other’s aren’t quite so sure and see his death as existing more in the grey area of the acid casualty. Certainly the System pumping him full of drugs had done him no good. It is hard to know how his own previous and pre-prison profligate experimentation with psychedelics precipitated his decline.
Nigel Ayers who attended the festival in the years ’74, ‘75, ’76 witnessed the buildup of the legend surrounding Wally Hope. He writes of him, “I last saw Russell, seeming rather subdued, in 1975, at the Watchfield Free Festival. A few weeks later I saw a report in the local paper that he had died in mysterious circumstances. The next year at the Stonehenge festival, a whisper went round that someone had turned up with the ashes from Wally's cremation. At midday, within the sarsen circle, Sid Rawle said a few mystical words over a small wooden box and a bunch of us scattered Wally's mortal remains over the stones. I took a handful of ashes out to sprinkle on the Heel stone, and as I did so, a breeze blew up and I got a bit of Wally in my eye.”
THE BIRTH OF CRASS
““There has to be an alternative to the dole, do something creative.” –Steve Ignorant, interviewed in 1997.
From the ashes and fallout surrounding Russell’s death, something new was born. The Stonehenge Festival continued on as a regular event around the Summer Solstice, attracting more and more people to the standing stones. Wally would have been proud to have seen the success of his vision. Then in 1985 it was squashed down “as part of a general offensive against working class self-organisation police roadblocks were set up to prevent the festival happening anywhere near Stonehenge,” writes Ayers. The general ban on gatherings taking place anywhere near the ancient site around the Summer Solstice continues to this day. Police roadblocks are set up in the area of Wiltshire every June to keep the rabble out.
During the next few years after Wally’s death, as the Festival was taking off, Dial House became increasingly politicized. The house now existed as a functioning community on the fringe of society. The people who made it home lived outside the System, and somewhat off the grid. For Penny Rimbaud the death of Wally precipitated a period of personal crisis as he sought to uncover a possible conspiracy surrounding the hippie’s death, which he concluded was murder by the State even if he hadn’t been murdered outright by being stabbed or shot. He and the others who lived at Dial House began to wonder if their idyllic rural existence was a cop out to avoid further personal and social responsibility.
During the winters Penny had taken up working on a farm, potato picking, to earn some money. One day on the job Steve Williams, later to become Steve Ignorant, turned up. He was a very angry working class youth, full of vehemence in the knowledge that there was nothing really for him out in the world of 1970s Britain. He came round to Dial House with Rimbaud and came to see that the place was a haven. At around the same time Steve was getting into the new punk music scene. The energies were a heady brew and the style of punk made it possible for anyone to start a band even those with little to no musical experience. Steve told Penny, who had been playing music with Exit and the other groups about his intention to start a band. Penny signed on as the drummer, and soon the other members of the band clustered around them and came into the fold, including the radical feminist Eve Libertine who contributed additional vocals. Crass helped created the back and forth, male, female vocal trade off that became a standard part of later punk music.
Just as Dial House had been Wally’s HQ for the Stonehenge Free Festival, it became the center of operations for Crass. Living together in a low rent space they were able to pool their resources. Having their own place to practice in allowed them to save the money that bands living in London would have had to spend on renting a practice space. Using cheap equipment and whatever they could scrounge up allowed them to start their own record label after their first EP, put out by the Small Wonder label, fell prey to censorship.
The song in question was called “Asylum”. Workers at the Irish pressing plant contracted to manufacture the disc refused to handle it due to the allegedly blasphemous content of the song. Later it was released with the track removed and replaced by two minutes of silence, wryly retitled "The Sound Of Free Speech". After this incident they seized the reigns of production for themselves and Crass Records was launched as in house label. They wouldn’t be silenced and to ensure their voices were heard they wanted to be in control of all aspects of their future productions. Using money from a small inheritance that had been left to one of the band, the piece was shortly afterwards re-recorded and released as a 7" single using its full title, "Reality Asylum". When The Feeding of the 5000 was re-pressed on Crass Records the missing track was restored. Gee Vaucher managed the visual aspect of the band, designing the covers and sleaves and providing artistic backdrops and videos for their performances. Their lifestyle may have been bohemian and Spartan, but by living that way they were able to produce more than they consumed.
In the section on craft I’ll get more into the operations of their record label, press and their achievements as a band. Yet all that they did could not have been achieved if they hadn’t made the effort to develop a communal living space.
Even as they never told anyone else how to live, through venting their frustrations with the Thatcher government and by expressing the ideals and practical philosophies they lived by, they came to have a huge influence in the areas of anarchism, pacifism, feminism, and vegetarianism. The goals of a green wizard and deindustrial oriented down home punk need not be the same as Crass. As individuals and as a band, and as anarchists, they never told others what to do. Yet what they did was so powerful it still resonates today. The example they left of the way they did things remains impressive.
Part of what is so admirable about Crass is that they walked their talk, and inspired countless others elsewhere to do so as well. Their influence can be easily traced within the broader punk movement itself and formed much of my own inspiration for getting on with things and doing them myself as a teenager. This is partly why I think they are a relevant model for green wizardry. The point isn’t to let their example dictate any particular aesthetic style or even political ideology, which I think the members of the band would be disappointed by, but rather to look at them and see what worked for them, how they did it, and how those actions might be creatively replicated or copied and applied to the circumstances of our times. They wanted to show by their example that other paths were possible: paths outside the dominance of an indifferent government, paths apart from a record industry that was more interested in money than communicating with listeners, living in a way that reflected their conscience, rather than numbing their conscience by succumbing to a life of inactivity and passive entertainment.
“Nothing has ever been done here by design. Something happens because someone’s here and it might be making bread or it might be painting a wall or it might be making a band. It’s about residence here,” Penny said in an interview.
Crass never told anyone what to do, or what to think, they just thought for themselves and took appropriate action based on the ramifications of those deep considerations. It shows in all they do. Action was a key word for them. As philosophers, poets, and punks it wasn’t ever enough to just live in an abstract world of ideals. They took measured and principled actions based on their ideals. Without these actions they wouldn’t have achieved such a cultural impact with such a long reach.
Yet Crass never wanted to become ideologues, or be anyone’s leader or guru. They had been so effective in getting their anarchist-pacifist message across the underground however that they so found themselves in a position as leaders, something they were uncomfortable with. All their releases had a strong political voice, but by 1982 at the time of the Falklands War the voice got louder with the release of their hit single How does it feel to be the mother of a thousand dead? that attacked Margaret Thatcher’s role in the escalation of violence.
“ You never wanted peace or solution, / From the start you lusted after war and destruction. / Your blood-soaked reason ruled out other choices, /Your mockery gagged more moderate voices. / So keen to play your bloody part, so impatient that your war be fought. Iron Lady with your stone heart so eager that the lesson be taught / That you inflicted, you determined, you created, you ordered - It was your decision to have those young boys slaughtered.”
This little number sold enough copies to make the top ten chart in its week of release, but for some strange reason it didn't even appear in the top 100. It was a song that made the band enemies of both the political left and right. It even got discussed in the House of Commons. Alongside their benefit concert in support of striking miners and CND, Crass came under increasing scrutiny from powers of the state including MI5.
They didn’t play gigs to make money or to gain fame but as a way to raise money or awareness for various causes. In the last month of 1982, to prove "that the underground punk scene could handle itself responsibly when it had to and that music really could be enjoyed free of the restraints imposed upon it by corporate industry" they helped co-ordinate a 24-hour squat in the empty west London Zig Zag club. The following two years Crass were part of the Stop the City actions co-ordinated by London Greenpeace foreshadowing the anti-globalisation rallies of the early 21st century. At this point members of the band were starting to have doubts about their commitment to pacifism and non-violence. The lyrics found in the bands last single expressed their support for the actions and the questioning of their own values.
“Pacified. Classified / Keep in line. You're doing fine / Lost your voice? There ain't no choice Play the game. Silent and tame / Be the passive observer, sit back and look / At the world they destroyed and the peace that they took / Ask no questions, hear no lies / And you'll be living in the comfort of a fool's paradise / You're already dead, you're already dead.”
The song showcased the growing political disagreements within the group, as explained by Rimbaud; "Half the band supported the pacifist line and half supported direct and if necessary violent action. It was a confusing time for us, and I think a lot of our records show that, inadvertently". The band had become darkly introspective and was starting to lose sight of the positive stance they had started out with.
Add to this the continuing pressures from their activities. Conservative Party MP Timothy Eggar was attempting to prosecute them under the UK's Obscene Publications Act for their single, How Does It Feel… The band already had a hefty backload of legal expenses incurred for the obscenity prosecutions against their feminist album Penis Envy, that critiqued, among many other things, the sexual theories of Freud.
“We found ourselves in a strange and frightening arena. We had wanted to make our views public, had wanted to share them with like minded people, but now those views were being analysed by those dark shadows who inhabited the corridors of power…We had gained a form of political power, found a voice, were being treated with a slightly awed respect, but was that really what we wanted? Was that what we had set out to achieve all those years ago?”
Combined with exhaustion and the pressures of living and operating together, it all took its toll. On 7 July 1984, the band played a benefit gig at Aberdare, Wales, for striking miners, and on the return trip guitarist N. A. Palmer announced that he intended to leave the group. This confirmed Crass's previous intention to quit in the symbolically charged year of 1984. So they retired the band.
Yet, in spite of all that Dial House remains to this day and members of Crass have worked together on and off in various configurations over the intervening years.
Crass sold thousands of records through their house label and went on extensive tours. They made an impact whose residual waves are still rippling outwards, touching people’s lives. It was inevitable that Crass as the most public creation of Dial House would attract new and successive waves of visitors. It remains a kind of mecca for a diverse range of people professing interest in alternative values, as well as old friends who wish to drop by. To accommodate this influx, the interior of the house required modification and outbuildings were constructed to enable the ‘open house’ policy to remain operable. Eve Libertine noted that "A lot of people were really surprised because they were expecting it to be really quite scruffy - filthy dishes piled up everywhere - and they were really quite in awe." The grounds and buildings are well-tended and from the videos and pictures I’ve seen of the place, it looks more like a Zen retreat, a place to work, reflect on the work done, then work some more inspired by the ability to think and be introspective, as well as just be. Punk house does not automatically equate to party house or a trashed house.
Although their music was filled with their vitriol Dial House itself is a place of serenity. That serenity has faced many threats. After Crass disbanded in 1984 the first threat was eviction. The General Post Office had recently been taken over by British Telecom and now they wanted to develop the seven hundred acres of land tenanted to the farm of which Dial House was a part.
Keeping their home in the face of these threats was one of their new projects and they worked on it for over sixteen years. They weren’t alone in this effort. They allied themselves with others in the local community who also didn’t want to see the land they were on destroyed. Again Dial House became a hub for the activities surrounding the opposition of the developers. They created a monthly newspaper that detailed the developers every move and reporting every fact they could get their hands on. These were distributed for free along with posters and flyers in the area. They also helped convert a shop in the local village into an information center.
While all of this was going on, individual residents continued to work on their personal creative projects. Steve Ignorant had become fascinated with the history of Punch and Judy puppet shows and started making his own puppets. One thing led to another and he made all of the puppets and a small booth to start putting on shows. Other house residents were equally creative in the realms of writing, painting, philosophizing, making and building. The stream of visitors remained steady. When people came to stay they were encouraged to pitch and help out with the chores and needs of the household.
In 2002 the developers were finally worn down by the constant campaign against them and gave up their attempts to kick people out and destroy the land. Penny and Gee, along with current and past residents, made a successful bid for the property. The punk scene had gathered around them to help. Whereas Crass had hardly made any money as a band, giving most of their gig earnings away as part of charities and benefits, now they were the recipients of money brought in from concerts and other benefits and events that had been organized on their behalf. What they had given came back to them. Dial House had been saved.
Gee and Vaucher, as the people who have lived there the longest have over that time attempted to formalize the operational structure of Dial House, all while living their own lives and acting as hosts. It remains a place where all manner of events from philosophical gatherings to permaculture workshops have become regular features. Other long term arrangements, such as artist residencies, have made broader use of the space. As the core residents of Dial House continue to age, they are looking into ways to ensure that what they have created over the last fifty years will live beyond them for the benefit of others. They are working on the possibility of the house being placed into a trust as a ‘Centre for the Radical Arts’.
GET OUT OF YOUR OWN WAY
In the end Dial House may be regarded as a place you can go to get out of your own way. This is a phrase that sits under a memento mori skull on Penny Rimbaud’s desk. To him it is a kind of Zen aphorism, a reminder to not get entranced by his own personality, his history and ideas he holds of who he is. Zen had been a part of Penny’s life since he was an adolescent when he went on holiday to Italy with his parents. There he met a street painter whom befriended the young man and gave him a book on the Asian philosophy. Penny doesn’t regard himself as Zen, but for all his philosophizing has found that it was the closest thing within the material world that makes any sense to him.
Within the past fifteen or so years at the time of this writing Penny Rimbaud took up the practices of daily meditation and tai chi. The meditation serves as a way to help keep his mind and heart open, just as removing the locks on the doors of the house was one of the practical actions he took to have an open heart. The tai chi he took up as a discipline of self-defense and he looks at it as an extension of the pacifist and non-violent stance he has taken in this world. Penny has helped to lead workshops in places such as South America, teaching women activists and others tai chi as a method of non-violent self-defense.
It is for all of these reasons that I’ve come to view Dial House as a contemporary secular monastery and its residents as punk rock monastics. I’m not sure if they would agree with this characterization or not. They live with discipline and follow a philosophy that guides their lives and actions. They are practitioners of various arts and have developed a strong home economy. If there was a monastic rule for their order I would expect it to be their “open-door, open-heart” policy, and the reminder to “get out of your own way”.
In true Zen fashion Penny says “You know I sort of describe myself as an in-activist. I want to stop this sort of progressing through life. I want to just let life progress through me. And the first thing that occurred would be taking the locks off the doors. That’s what I’ve done the last fifty years.”
In speaking of Dial House and the land he says “I mean there is no separateness between me and it. It is who I am and I am who it is.”
(Crossposted on my website here: http://www.sothismedias.com/home/punk-house-1-squats-slan-shacks-dial-house )
Please note that any (unintentional) inaccuracies in this article are the fault of this writer!
Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, a New Urban World by Robert Neuwirth, Routledge, 2004.
See, Families Squat In Abandoned Homes As The Housing Crisis Grips Detroit by Kate Abbey-Lambertz, huffington post article: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/detroit-housing-crisis-abandoned-homes-sq..., retrieved in July and August of 2019. For another view read: Dead bodies, wild dogs, squatters in government-owned Detroit houses byJennifer Dixon, Detroit Free Press https://www.freep.com/story/news/local/2018/07/19/squatters-detroit-land.... Furthermore there is even a book about how to get by in Detroit due to its lack of services. It’s titled DIY Detroit: Making Do in a City Without Services by Kimberley Kinder, University Of Minnesota Press, 2016.
See Comparing the Slums of 1970s Glasgow to the Buildings That Stand There Today by Hope Whitmore https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/3bjyg9/nick-hedges-scotland-slums-288
Slan by A.E. van Vogt, 1946: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slan
See Fancyclopedia 3: http://fancyclopedia.org/slan-shack
Teenage: the Creation of Youth Culture by Jon Savage, Viking, New York, 2007
The Last of the Hippies: an Hysterical Romance by Penny Rimbaud, PM Press, 2015.
The Story of Crass by George Berger, PM Press, 2009.
See: WHERE'S WALLY? a personal account of a multiple-use-name entanglement
by Nigel Ayers https://www.earthlydelights.co.uk/netnews/wally.html Nigel Ayers was a regular attendee at the Stonehenge Free Festival. He later went on to found the influential, multiple-genre band, Nocturnal Emissions. Nigel’s explorations of Britain’s sacred and mythic landscape, and megalithic sites, can see and heard throughout his body of work.
Footnote: All of this is detailed in Rimbaud’s book The Last of the Hippies: an Hysterical Romance. It was first published in 1982 in conjunction with the Crass record Christ: The Album.
This would have been shortly after his release from psychiatric confinement.
Interviewed bySid and Zillah (Rubella Ballet): https://youtu.be/IgNToZnyslE
. Video produced by Noisey website and published on February 28, 2017. Retrieved quote from on August 23rd 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sDppC86YFIs
In writing this I struggled with the idea of using them as a model for a style of green wizardry. If there is no authority but yourself, as they have so often said, than that means they are not authorities, except for themselves and their own business. I try to look at them as peers who have done some things I find to be noble and worthy of considered emulation, not blind following.
"How Does It Feel To Be The Mother of 1000 Dead?" / "The Immortal Death" , Crass Records 221984/6, 7" single, 1983. This is also available on the compilation Best before…1984, 1986 – CATNO5; compilation album of singles.
"You're Already Dead" / "Nagasaki is Yesterday's Dog-End" / "Don't Get Caught", 1984, 7" single, 1984.
Country House Anarchy by Ian Aitch, from the Guardian, January 5, 2001. Retrieved August 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/friday_review/story/0,3605,417770,00.html
This aspect of Steve Ignorant’s work will be explored further in the section on Folk-Punk.